SALEM — Faced with high fuel costs and low weekday ridership this time of year, the Salem ferry is cutting back to a three-day schedule for the rest of the season.
The new weekend — Friday, Saturday and Sunday — service will begin next week and run until the end of the season on Oct. 31.
The ferry will operate from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays.
The announcement yesterday by Boston's Best Cruises means the end of the 7 a.m. commuter service between Salem and Boston. The 149-passenger ferry carries only about 30 to 40 commuters daily paying an average of $5.40 per person, not enough to cover fuel costs, the company said.
"During shoulder season (i.e., the spring and early fall), the ridership is always low during the week," Bill Walker, one of the principals of Boston's Best Cruises, said in a statement.
"In fact, last October, 70 percent of riders used the ferry on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. This year, the higher fuel costs for running the ferry seven days per week, without the ridership to support it, has made daily operation not feasible."
Fuel costs are up more than $1 per gallon from last year, Walker said.
Despite the surprise move, an official from Boston's Best Cruises said they expect to return next season.
"This is not an indication we're about to fold up (the Salem ferry)," Missy Walker said. "This is a strategic move for us to be able to continue operation this year without incurring any more loss ...
"We think (the Salem ferry) is a viable service. We just have to find a way to get those ridership numbers up."
Mayor Kim Driscoll emailed city councilors yesterday to inform them of the development.
"We're definitely disappointed," Driscoll said. "It's been a wonderful way to get to and from Boston. Once you have something like that, you hate to lose it, even for this short period of time."
The mayor said she and the ferry operator are committed to continuing service between Salem and Boston.
"I think they're very committed," she said. "This is their sixth year. They certainly didn't want to utilize this option."
In addition to weekends, the ferry will run on Columbus Day and Halloween this fall.
Despite the higher diesel fuel costs, Boston Best Cruises is not cutting service on any of its other ferry runs. It operates a harbor commuter express for the MBTA, a whale watch for the New England Aquarium and a Boston Harbor Island service.
The commuter service, however, is year-round and subsidized by the MBTA.
Overall tourism down
Yesterday's unexpected announcement from the Salem ferry operator underscores the challenges faced this summer by the tourism industry.
Several Salem businesses said the number of visitors is down from last year, which was a banner year, and that tourists are making last-minute plans and aren't spending as much.
"I don't think any of us has gotten back to the level before the recession," said Juli Lederhaus, general manager of the Hawthorne Hotel. "I think there's still a lot of uncertainty out there."
Business was down for the Salem Trolley, which takes thousands of visitors around the city. In addition, it has had to absorb higher fuel costs.
"Let's put it this way," co-owner David Butler said. "It wasn't like last year, which was almost the perfect storm of good weather" and a brighter outlook. "I think this year was almost exactly the opposite. The weather's been kind of 'iffy,' and I think the atmosphere overall has been a little down."
Business is down about 10 percent, Butler said.
The Salem Witch Museum, the city's leading tourist attraction, also saw a dip in visitors from last year's high numbers.
June was flat, while July and August were down about 6 percent, an official said.
"I think everyone is kind of holding their own," said Tina Jordan, director of the Witch Museum. "Hopefully, October will be strong."
Tropical Storm Irene hurt business everywhere.
"We didn't finish August as strong as last year, and I think it had a great deal to do with that storm," said Amy Waywell, director of visitor services and marketing at The House of the Seven Gables.
A few local businesses bucked the trend.
The Peabody Essex Museum had more than 66,000 visitors between June and August, which was 24 percent above last summer's totals. The high numbers are due to strong exhibits, an official said. The popular Dutch painting show ended in June, and other well-attended exhibits followed.
At Tavern in the Square, one of the city's largest restaurants, this summer was stronger than last year, according to co-owner Mark Morris.
In general, the restaurants have continued to do well, according to Rinus Oosthoek, executive director of the Salem Chamber of Commerce.
One of the city's strengths is the diversity of the downtown economy, which draws a variety of tourists, restaurant-goers and shoppers, several officials said.
"People coming into the shops and to dine aren't necessarily here for the witch trials history," said Kate Fox, the executive director of Destination Salem, the city's tourism office.
A new business, Witch City Segway, wasn't here last year, so has no point of comparison. But, so far, business has been good.
"I would say the weekends have been pretty much sold out all summer long," co-owner Brad Biscornet said.